Love, Death and the TSO

Tonight was my first look at the Toronto Symphony playing under Peter Oundjian since their Florida tour.

On the trip I saw an ensemble who were playing with commitment and passion. Oundjian’s leadership for the three performances I saw of Scheherazade reminded me a bit of a talk-show host. When I said this to Oundjian in our brief meeting in Daytona I think I saw him shudder as if he were in the presence of an idiot. But it’s not as dopey as it sounds. The Rimsky-Korsakov piece is full of an astonishing collection of solos, at least one per section. At times Oundjian was behaving like a story-teller which is apt for an episodic composition that is entirely about story-telling, or a curator showing us a beautiful series of pieces. It was perhaps paradoxical to experience a work where he seemed willing to let go of the controls, crossing his arms while the soloist functions a piacere, ad libitum as it were, and then when necessary, having them jump into formation for big precise passages, especially in the last movement.  I saw the pleasure of admiration, mentorship, even friendship, a proud leader watching his collaborators making music, not a boss or an authority figure.

Is this because of the time spent on vacation, playing the same piece over and over? Or maybe it has to do with a slight re-alignment of responsibilities. Since Jeff Melanson came on the scene and has gradually asserted his control in the past 6 months, I can’t help comparing this to what we saw at the Canadian Opera Company. Under Richard Bradshaw you had an artistic director / general director who was both the impresario and the fellow waving the baton, running so hard that maybe it’s no wonder that he tragically died of a heart attack; their current model is for two people –Alexander Neef and Johannes Debus—to do what used to be done by a single person.

And so while Oundjian still gives the occasional talk, I can’t help thinking that he is maybe better able to focus on his orchestra as conductor without extra duties (and excuse me if the analogy is inexact, given that Melanson had a predecessor, but not one who would step up to the microphone). Right now they seem to be in a groove. The TSO sounded good playing Mozart under Bernard Labadie the past two weeks, yet I think they sounded better tonight. We all love Mozart, but this –the large powerful works for big orchestras that we heard tonight—should be the TSO’s specialty, the works that no one else in town can or will undertake. I’ve never heard a sound from the TSO that seemed to match Roy Thomson Hall so perfectly, especially in the final portion of the concert.

Tonight’s program had wonderful overtones of profundity. All three romantic compositions — Sibelius’s Swan of Tuonela, Henri Dutilleux’s Correspondances and Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique— explore themes of love & death, the meaning of life, good and evil. I can’t help thinking of something R Murray Schafer said in his book My Life on Earth and Elsewhere as an indication of how far we’ve come. He spoke of the usual place of modern (especially Canadian) works on a typical concert program.

The contract read: ‘It is agreed that the work shall have a minimum duration of approximately seven(7) minutes and no longer than ten (10) minutes.’ That is, the work was to be what Canadian composers call a ‘piece de garage’, intended for performance while the patrons were parking their cars.

But tonight’s fodder for the late-arriving patrons coming from the garage wasn’t a modern piece but a classic by Sibelius! While the opening notes of his Swan of Tuonela were played over a fidgety crowd who seemed somewhat indifferent, I was surprised at how quickly they became attentive, especially once we got to Cary Ebli’s powerful English Horn solo.

The most modern edgy piece was placed second on the program and was eagerly received by a rapturous audience, because of course this was another collaboration between the TSO and soprano Barbara Hannigan. Henri Dutilleux’s understanding of Correspondances – the poem by Baudelaire that gives the work its title-  is a specialized kind of metaphysics, where we’re not in the safe realms of last week’s Mozart Requiem but instead in a place fraught with good and evil: just like life actually.

Nature is a temple where living pillars
Let escape sometimes confused words;
Man traverses it through forests of symbols
That observe him with familiar glances.

Like long echoes that intermingle from afar
In a dark and profound unity,
Vast like the night and like the light,
The perfumes, the colors and the sounds respond.

There are perfumes fresh like the skin of infants
Sweet like oboes, green like prairies,
—And others corrupted, rich and triumphant

That have the expanse of infinite things,
Like ambergris, musk, balsam and incense,
Which sing the ecstasies of the mind and senses.

Baudelaire’s poem is subtext for a series of texts sung by the soprano.

Barbara Hannigan, Peter Oundjian 2  (Malcolm Cook photo)

Soprano Barbara Hannigan, Conductor Peter Oundjian and the Toronto Symphony (photo: Malcolm Cook)

That “forest of symbols” is the forest of the symbolists, meanings that aren’t to be decoded but remain out of reach. We’re in a kind of purgatory, with Vincent van Gogh striving to express the inexpressible, with Solzhenitsyn grateful while lamenting the price his friends (Vishnevskaya especially) paid in showing solidarity. Dutilleux’s scoring sometimes pushes the soprano to sing very high, occasionally loudly, but more often we’re lower in her range, sometimes listening to something intimate & direct with the orchestra mediating. There’s a wonderful duet between an accordion and tuba. Whoever thought to leave the lights on –so that we could see the text in our programs – had a brilliant idea, as I saw lots of people doing as I did, following along with the words printed in the program. RTH was quite full, Hannigan’s reception thunderous, and I have to think it’s both her performance and the simple fact that we understood what was being sung.  Thank you Hannigan but also thanks TSO for leaving the lights on.

And yet I wonder if that’s why they were there, considering what followed, namely Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique. I used to own a cassette of the TSO playing this work, conducted by Seiji Ozawa from another century when I knew this as stoner music, given that Berlioz composed the first hallucinatory tunes long before anyone had heard of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”. In those days the brass would fluff every now and then even while boldly doing their best. Fast forward (and not on the tape) to a time when the TSO doesn’t fluff. Saturday I’m wondering who will play what, considering that horn principal Neil Deland –who had the lovely solo in the intro to the first movement and lots of notes (with the whole section) in the second movement—is also undertaking Richard Strauss’s first horn concerto. But the whole section is rock solid, considering that we heard solos from three different horn-players tonight.

This was the most attentive Toronto Symphony audience I’ve experienced, quieter even than the Mozart Requiem a few days ago. There was only one tiny smattering of applause between movements, coming after the shattering climax of the fourth movement. I wonder if I could put in a word for the good old days –Berlioz’s time that is—when not only would there be applause between movements but even encores..? At the premiere in 1830 they encored the fourth movement. We’d been watching the trombones sitting silently, a hint of menace in the air from these people with legs spread to make room for their equipment (literally), and uh oh then they picked up their instruments. Trouble.

There’s no mistaking the chemistry though, an inevitable by-product of the trip. Oundjian is clearly in charge, the orchestra ebbing and flowing, sometimes picking up speed to end a movement as they did for the ball, the March to the Scaffold and again in the Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath. The grotesquerie was maximized, the orchestra filling Roy Thomson Hall with their big sound in the last two movements.

You can hear Oundjian lead the TSO in Symphonie Fantastique coupled with Neil Deland playing the Strauss Concerto #1 on Saturday night at Roy Thomson Hall.

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